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Israel's Lieberman says Iranian warships headed for Suez Canal in 'provocation'

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JERUSALEM - Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that Iran was about to send two warships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, calling it a "provocation."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed in a statement that Israel was following the ships' movements, but an aide said they were no cause for alarm.

An Iranian navy official confirmed Thursday that two warships were to pass through the canal, Iran's English-language Press TV reported. But there was no word on the timing of the reported passage, which would be the first by the Iranian navy since the country's 1979 revolution.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that two Iranian vessels, identified as the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq, have submitted a request to pass through the Suez Canal, but a senior canal official said any decision on granting passage rests with the Egyptian Defense Ministry, the Associated Press reported. The canal official, Ahmed al-Manakhly, said the ships were in an area off Saudi Arabia's Red Sea port of Jiddah.

Lieberman, who is known for his blunt language, spoke in a closed meeting with visiting members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"Tonight, two Iranian warships are to pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and reach Syria, something that has not happened for many years," Lieberman said, according to excerpts of his remarks provided by his office. "This is a provocation that proves that the self-confidence and audacity of the Iranians are increasing from day to day."

"The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever," Lieberman added.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke later to the gathering, made no mention of the reported Iranian movements.

"Obviously this is a concern," said an Israeli official who spoke anonymously Wednesday because of the sensitivity of the issue. "An Iranian presence in the Mediterranean is a problem. They are constantly expanding their footprint in the region." He had nothing further to add Thursday.

Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported Jan. 26 that Iranian navy cadets were going on a year-long training mission and would be traveling through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. It said they were training to defend Iranian ships against the threat of Somali pirates.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed Wednesday that the Iranian ships were at sea, south of the canal, but he would not comment on whether their presence was considered provocative. "There are two ships in the Red Sea," he said. "What their intention is, what their destination is, I can't say."

Israeli naval vessels have on occasion moved through the Suez Canal under the terms of the peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979.

The Israeli government views Iran as an existential threat because of its nuclear program, its hostility toward Israel and its support for the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

Press TV, which is owned by Iran's state-run television, quoted an unidentified "navy official" as saying that Iranian authorities were in contact with officials in Cairo to secure the warships' passage through the Suez Canal and that the Egyptian officials saw "nothing wrong" with the plan. Earlier, a Suez Canal official said no Iranian warships were on the waiting list to pass through the canal.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report. Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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